Hanukkah is our family’s favorite holiday. We host a different set of guests each night and we like to inject each year with its own special flavor. As the holiday approaches we identify a theme for the year and I try to plan something a bit different and special for our eight nights of celebration. Any ideas for this year?
I salute you and I offer you the Marvelous March of Menorahs! Here’s the plan: Each night you will highlight a legendary menorah from the past. First, tell its story and then draw out a lesson that it uniquely exemplifies. By using the “Talking Points” outline for each night, you will be able to draw out meaningful conversations from your guests. Good luck and godspeed.
First Night — The menorah of the Mikdash: We must start with the original prototypical menorah of menorahs. Shortly after the Exodus and the giving of the Torah, the people Israel were commanded to build a tabernacle, a portable abode to house the Divine Presence to inscribe on their consciousness that indeed the Lord dwells among the people. All the specifications are meticulously described to Moshe, among them a candlestick of pure gold, symbolizing, according to Abravanel, the seven degrees of wisdom. The middle branch represented the Torah with which all wisdoms must harmonize.
Talking Points: In what way does Judaism serve as a “central illuminating branch” in your life? In what way do all “wisdoms” interface with Torah?
Second Night — The menorah on the Arch of Titus: I grew up hearing about the menorah on the offensive Arch of Titus, carried by Jewish captives of Zion. It is an honorific arch located in Rome, constructed in 82 CE by the Roman emperor Domitian after the death of his older brother Titus to commemorate Titus’s victories, including the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. It is a raw, in-your-face record of our people’s national humiliation and catastrophe. Jewish tourists were known to deface the ancient arch by scratching “Am Yisrael Chai, the Nation of Israel lives” into its marble, and Roman Jews refused to walk under it.
Talking Points: What feelings emerge for you around this image? Would you walk under it? Would you deface it?
Third Night — Menorahs made from paper: In Billings, Mont. on December 2, 1993, someone threw a brick through the window of a Jewish home that displayed a menorah. What happened next was truly remarkable. An editorial in the local newspaper urged residents to join together by displaying paper menorahs in the windows of their homes as a symbol of their determination to live together in harmony until Christmas.
“Let all the world know that the national hatred of a few cannot destroy what all of us in Billings, and in America, have worked together so long to build,” stated the editorial. It later became the subject of a children’s book, The Christmas Menorahs.
Talking Points: Have you ever experienced an act of hate? Have you ever stood up to a bully? What effect can this kind of collective coming together have on society?
Fourth Night — Menorahs carved from potatoes: Survivors of the Holocaust have told of heroic steps they took or saw others take to observe Jewish rituals, even in the most horrific of situations. This story poignantly tells that tale: On the first night of Hanukkah 1943 in Bergen-Belsen, Rabbi Israel Shapiro, the Bluzhever Rebbe, organized fellow inmates to observe Hanukkah. From their meager food rations, they set aside bits of fat, drew threads from their ragged garments, and twisted them into wicks. And the menorah? That they formed out of raw potatoes. I can imagine the extreme gratification they must have felt being able to wrestle a small dose of redemption and spirituality amidst the horrors of their reality.
Talking Points: How does the lighting of a potato menorah during the Holocaust reflect the themes of Hanukkah? How does this specific observance resonate for you today?
Fifth Night — The Menorah of the Book of Zechariah: Here the menorah is central to an intense prophetic vision of Zerubavel, leader of the Babylonian Jewish returnees to Zion around the year 538 BCE, who was charged with the rebuilding of the Temple. We read this passage in the Haftarah on Shabbat Hanukkah. In the revelation, Zerubavel sees an angel who tells him:
“What do you see?” And I answered, “I see a menorah all of gold, with a bowl above it…and by it are two olive trees… “What do these things mean?”…This is the word of the Lord…Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit alone.
These gripping words with the vision of the trees providing a steady stream of olive oil for the menorah teach that despite all diabolical human machinations, the enduring spirit of God will ultimately triumph.
Talking Points: How do you understand the words, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit alone?” Have you experienced the triumph of the spirit?
Sixth Night — The menorah that became a hanukkiyah: That the miracle of Hanukkah is centered specifically on the Temple’s menorah is significant. Other vessels adorned the Temple: The table for the showbread, the altar for incense, the washstand — we did not feel the intense need to rededicate these items. The search for the oil took on an almost disproportionate centrality relative to its inherent utility. Many scholars discuss the overzealousness in getting the menorah lit. Some say that enthusiasm “forced” the miracle of the oil, which lasted eight days instead of the one day it should have burned. This led to the fashioning of our menorah, more correctly referred to as hanukkiyah, with not seven branches but eight, plus one in the center.
Talking Points: How do you understand the miracle of the oil? What do the lights of menorah symbolize for you?
Seventh Night — The menorah on the emblem of the State of Israel: The design for the emblem of the State of Israel was adopted after a competition held in 1948. The olive branch border is reminiscent of the vision of Zerubavel, while the menorah itself is a deliberate copy of the menorah of the Arch of Titus. Its powerful message is lost on few. The Titus menorah dramatically evoked the message of the newly reborn State of Israel and the culmination of the exiled Jew in captivity.
Talking Points: Why else should the menorah belong on Israel’s emblem? Where else do you see menorah images used in Jewish life?
Eighth Night — Your own menorah: Every family has its own menorah story. Here is mine: When I was 10 years old, my family traveled to Israel for the summer. It was magical! There were places to see, foods to eat and shopping to be done. We were in Jerusalem, on Strauss Street near Jaffa Road, when we walked past a tiny Judaica store with a formidable Jerusalemite Chassid standing by the door. A beautiful silver menorah stood in the window. We had never seen anything like it: An oil menorah with a low base and silver back that held a golden Ten Commandments. Eight small lions with heads as lids hinged back to allow the oil to be poured in. The mouths were tiny cylinders for wicks. On each side, a miniature pitcher hung precariously. That menorah had to come back to Pittsburgh.
Each night, my mother and I would roll cotton into wicks, which we would then painstakingly maneuver into those tiny spouts. My father would come home from evening services, light the menorah in our living room, and sing the blessings, taking us back to that street in that crowded, pint-sized storefront in Jerusalem. For now, it sits tentatively here in Seattle, dreaming of a return to the Holy Land and a reunion with that formidable Chassid.
Talking Points: What’s your family’s menorah story? How will you pass it on?